Martyrdom and national identity

Understanding the nature of resistance in Palestinian society.

Hamas heads 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Hamas heads 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Scholars have extensively researched the concept of nation for more than a century, and different definitions have emerged. Most of them, share the idea of that the nation is a "construction," as opposed to the idea that most national movements pretend to define themselves as continuation of an ancestral past. Benedict Anderson defines the nation as an "imagined political community," meaning that "the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their nations." Ernest Gellner, puts it in the following terms: "Nations as natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent…political destiny are a myth; nationalism which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is a reality." Moreover, nations should not be considered as static, or an unchanging society entity, but rather a dynamic process depending on the specific historical context, continually redefining it. In this context, I want to outline certain elements of the Palestinian national identity which had emerged under the context of the Aksa intifada. Rashid Khalidi, the author of Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, traces the construction process of the Palestinian national identity. Firstly, before World War I, a national identity was shared by a restricted circle of urban educated elite. This circle itself formed a new elite composed by teachers, clerks, government officials and businessmen, during the Ottoman rule. The Palestinian identity, however, "competed and overlapped with Ottomans and Arabism, as well as older religious, local, and family loyalties." The shocks of War World I deepened a sense of common fate, "making it a primary category of identity for many, if not most, Palestinians." IN ADDITION, the struggle against the British and Zionists during the Mandate helped to deepen this "sense of common fate," although certain differences persisted between urban areas, well-to do, and poor, and literate and illiterate. Finally, the events of 1948 produced a "universally shared experience" - dispossession, the feeling that they were not masters of their own fate, defeat and exile. Khalidi is of the mind that "[o]n the Palestinian popular level the defeats, the dislocations, the dispossession, the flight and the expulsion…ultimately resulted in the universalization of a uniform Palestinian identity." SINCE THE beginning of the formation of the Palestinian national consciousness resistance played an important role. It constitutes a source for a sense of common experience and ideal. A significant example for this is what the Palestinian declaration of independence stands for: "The massive national uprising, the intifada, now intensifying in cumulative scope and power on occupied Palestinian territories, as well as the unflinching resistance of the refugee camps outside the homeland, have elevated awareness of the Palestinian truth and right into still higher realms of comprehension and actuality. Now at last the curtain has been dropped around a whole epoch of prevarication and negation. The intifada has set siege to the mind of official Israel, which has for too long relied exclusively upon myth and terror to deny Palestinian existence altogether. Because of the intifada and its revolutionary irreversible impulse, the history of Palestine has therefore arrived at a decisive juncture." Since the beginning of the Intifada al-Aksa, as long as the repression tightened, the sense of resistance as a source for collective identification was reinforced and deepened. In March 2002, the BBC declared that when "despair runs high…so does a spirit of resistance." Clarifying are the figures presented by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research: 87% of the Palestinian population support the armed attacks against Israeli soldiers, 86% against settlers, and 53% against civilians. Moreover, two thirds of the population believes that armed confrontations have helped Palestinians to achieve their national rights. It is worth mentioning that the vast majority support a mutual cessation of violence, in which both sides stop using arms against each other. Nonetheless, resistance is perceived as not only "a right and duty," but as a "remedy for the oppressed" and a means through which Palestinians should express their "human dignity." On April 3, 2002, within the context of the Israeli invasion to Palestinian territories, the PA, released a statement where it expresses the idea of resistance as a source for massive national mobilization: "The Leadership calls on our masses to organize their ranks in a long-term resistance to this occupation and to mobilize all potentials at all locations and to revitalize all popular and national energies and to unify the ranks of all our institutions and national forces..." WITHIN PALESTINIAN society there are voices which try to promote non-violent resistance, arguing that it is the "best form of resistance" and it should include both Palestinians and Israelis in order to "rise together against evil." The prominent Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, expressed his concordance with initiatives that adopt non-violent ways of struggle, which he thought "is certain to take control of the already too militarized intifada, center it nationally on ending occupation and settlements, and steer Palestinians toward statehood and peace." Some important Palestinian personalities called their people to "end militant attacks on Israel and resort to a peaceful, wide-scale popular uprising." However, Ramzy Baroud, editor-in-chief of the Palestinian Chronicle, considers that "[n]onviolence as an alternative method of resistance is doomed for failure" and that the "savagery of the enemy is what in fact determines the level of resistance." At any rate, violent or nonviolent resistance, apart of its pragmatic meaning, adopted a symbolic one; it is always addressed in nationalistic terms, expected to mobilize and unite Palestinians around their common national aim, namely to put an end to the Israeli occupation. ANOTHER CENTRAL factor in shaping the Palestinian national identity is the idea of martyrdom. Palestinians perceive martyrs not only those who commit suicide bombings, but to all of those who died within the context of the struggle against the Israeli occupation. Since the beginning of the Aksa intifada, Palestinian figures indicate that 2,736 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli security forces and 152 Palestinians - men and women - committed suicide taking with them numerous Israeli civilians - men, women and children. Eyad El Sarraj, a psychiatrist, founder and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, and a human rights activist, summarizes the process through which suicide bombing and becoming a martyr constitutes an honorable act: "The people who are committing the suicide bombing in this intifada are the children of the first intifada - people who witnessed so many traumas as children. So as they grew up, their own identity merged with the national identity of humiliation and defeat, and they avenge that defeat at both the personal and national levels… During the first intifada, studies showed that 55 percent of the children had witnessed their fathers being humiliated or beaten by Israeli soldiers. The psychological impact of this is stunning. The father, normally the authority figure, comes to be seen as somebody who is helpless, who can't even protect himself - let alone his children. So children became more militant, more violent." SARRAJ CONSIDERS that the symbol of power is the martyr, and "[i]f you ask a child in Gaza today what he wants to be when he grows up, he doesn't say he wants to be a doctor or a soldier or an engineer. He says he wants to be a martyr." In another article by Sarraj, the nationalistic element in martyrdom is presented. He considers that in every country citizens who fight for their country are considered brave men, in the Palestinian side, those who die for their country will be remembered as martyrs. Taking into consideration that the Palestinian society is facing an ongoing oppressive occupation, its sources for common identification are inevitably resulting from the common experience of oppression, humiliation and suffering. Within this context, resistance and martyrdom became not only the act itself of resisting or becoming a martyr, but also symbolic elements of common identification through which Palestinians define themselves: they constitute a proud resistant nation, whose members are ready to give their life for the national cause. The writer is the founder and the director of Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) based in east Jerusalem.